“This Denafrips DAC is very good. And really well built. Like, really well built.” It was Tuesday, and SoundStage! publisher Doug Schneider was telling me about the company’s flagship Terminator-Plus DAC over the phone while, as so often happens, I was trying to attend to my corporate day job. “Uh-huh,” I murmured, kinda, sorta listening. I knew Denafrips as the manufacturer of some relatively affordable digital gear that had made a splash amongst YouTube reviewers in recent times, and being a reviewer myself here at SoundStage! Ultra, I was completely unprepared for what Doug said next. “What if you reviewed their Venus II for SoundStage! Ultra?” My attention was immediately wrenched from my work email, and I bemusedly blurted, “Uh, what? Why?” I knew the Terminator-Plus—which like all Denafrips products is sold in Singapore dollars (SGD)—retailed for less than $6500 in the United States based on then-current conversion rates, and that the Venus II retailed for less than $3000. No matter how good the Venus II was, in my head, its pricing automatically ruled it out as an Ultra product. But Doug, my stubborn, combustible friend from the Great White North, encouraged me to be open-minded. I’m glad I was, because the times, they are a-changin’.
There are a couple of hi-fi assumptions that we need to collectively park at the front door of this review. The first is the idea that there’s a direct correlation between what a piece of gear costs and how good it is. In hi-fi, as in so many other areas of life, this is simply not true. And second is the notion that gear from Chinese companies—which some have derogatorily christened ChiFi—is broadly inferior to gear from occidental manufacturers. In the distant past, there may have been a kernel of truth to this belief, but these days, just about any hi-fi manufacturer will tell you that Chinese manufacturing is broadly superior to what can be mustered here in North America—Exhibit A being Apple’s iPhone, which is produced in Foxconn’s Chinese factories.
It’s important to disabuse ourselves of these notions because changes in the global supply chain, accelerated by COVID-19, are altering the hi-fi landscape.
So, back to Denafrips. The company was created in 2012 and is based in Guangzhou, China, a port city roughly 80 miles from Hong Kong. Their products are distributed and marketed by Singapore-based Vinshine Audio via a direct-to-consumer model, under the stewardship of Alvin Chee. The company is best known for its DAC lineup, of which the Venus II is the unenviable middle child. The Ares II ($852) and Pontus II ($1815) anchor the quintet, while the Terminator II ($4555) and Terminator-Plus ($6555) slot in above the Venus II (all prices based on SGD to USD conversion at this time). The company also markets several amps, preamps, digital reclockers, and even a master clock and a power conditioner.
What makes Denafrips’s digital converters stand out from the crowd is their use of a resistor-ladder (commonly known as R-2R) DAC topology. Chip-based delta-sigma DACs have been all the rage for the better part of two decades, and for good reason. They can be manufactured cheaply and offer high performance. When this technology is married to competent analog circuit and power supply design, you can achieve staggering digital performance for a relative pittance compared to what was possible even ten years ago. But as with any other audio philosophy, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This performance is achieved through the use of digital filters that apply mathematical wizardry to a digital signal, which may include bit-depth and sample-rate conversion of the original data to allow for the implementation of less aggressive filters with better phase response. Strong measured performance, then, comes at the cost of manipulating the underlying digital signal, an abhorrent concept to signal purists.
Ladder DACs, by contrast, may offer a non-oversampling mode and need not alter bit depth, preserving signal integrity throughout the digital-to-analog conversion process. Although ideologically pure, ladder DACs are significantly more difficult to execute in practice than their delta-sigma cousins. PC Magazine offers the most succinct explanation I’ve found of how a ladder DAC works:
An individual resistor is associated with each bit of the digital sample, typically 16 bits. The resistors are weighted to the mathematical value of the bit they represent. The 16-bit sample is read and passed to all 16 resistors at the same time, and the sum total of the current passing through the resistors represents the analog value of the digital sample.
That last bit is the challenging part. Current is summed across all resistors in a ladder, but so, too, is signal error. So, if a resistor’s value is suspect from the time it arrives from the factory, or in the more unlikely event that it drifts over time, it can degrade a ladder DAC’s precision. In the Venus II, there are four ladder arrays—two per channel—each with 500 resistors that are specced to 0.005% tolerance, in an arrangement that is “highly similar” to the Terminator II and Terminator-Plus models above it in Denafrips’s lineup. By increasing the number of resistors and summing across multiple arrays, there is the potential to average out the errors from individual resistors. For additional details, check out Evan McCosham’s excellent review of Denafrips’s Terminator-Plus DAC on our sister-site SoundStage! Hi-Fi.
While the Venus II is the company’s middle child, it has more in common with Denafrips’s higher-end models than the models beneath it in the lineup, sharing a 26-bit ladder (in contrast to the 24-bit ladder design in both the Ares II and Pontus II), and higher-tolerance resistors (0.005% versus 0.01% in the Ares II and Pontus II). It uses a temperature-compensated crystal oscillator clock and includes native DSD support using 6 bits and 32-step FIR filters. The digital inputs on offer are plentiful, including a USB port, plus three S/PDIF (one RCA, one BNC, and one optical TosLink), one I²S, and two AES/EBU (XLR) connectors. There’s PCM support up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD64 across all inputs, extending up to 24/1.536MHz and DSD1024, respectively, over the USB and I²S inputs. Both RCA and XLR analog outputs are found on the rear panel. A multistage toroidal power supply, meanwhile, keeps the current clean and separate for the digital and analog sections of the DAC.
The Venus II’s chassis is 12.6″W × 13″D × 3.2″H and weighs a substantial 18.7 pounds. That may not sound like a lot, but given that the Denafrips is much smaller than a full-size component, this little guy is seriously dense. The word “wow” came out of my mouth when I removed my silver review unit from its shipping carton (black is also available) and held it in my hands. It’s fashioned from thick, brushed-aluminum panels, and between the weight, the materials, and the finish, it was instantly clear to me that the Venus II is built to a far higher standard than any of its similarly priced competition. It’s admittedly not the most beautiful design, but the sheer solidity of the DAC more than makes up for that, combined with flourishes like the company’s name engraved in the top panel and the use of satisfyingly tactile front-mounted aluminum buttons. Its three footers have rubber feet, and the small, red LEDs are tasteful enough and bright enough without being blinding. Overall, the build quality and materials are outstanding for the price.
As a fixed-output device, the Venus II does not have a built-in volume control. There’s no remote control to speak of, and indeed, no power cord is included either. But you do get buttons for Power, Input selection, Mute, Phase, OS/NOS (oversampling and non-oversampling, respectively), and Mode (used to choose between Slow and Sharp filters when OS mode is engaged). A note on the OS/NOS operation: SoundStage! has measured both the entry-level Aries II and the line-leading Terminator-Plus and confirmed that NOS mode is not non-oversampling. Vinshine Audio’s Alvin Chee has confirmed that the Venus II’s NOS mode is identical to that of its siblings. When NOS mode is engaged, the DAC employs 16x oversampling, in tandem with a low-pass filter, resulting in a -3dB point of 14.5kHz with 44.1kHz sampled data. That’s quite the high-frequency roll off. As expected, the OS Slow and Sharp filters are brickwall-style filters with -3dB points of 20.9kHz and 21.5kHz, respectively. I do wonder why Denafrips markets their DACs as being non-oversampling, an assertion that, if we’re being charitable, is misleading at best. At the end of the day, though, everything else worked as advertised, and the chassis only ever got lukewarm during regular operation. It was an easy device to live with and I never ran into an issue with its functionality.
Spec-wise, Denafrips claims a frequency response of 20Hz-70kHz (-3dB), a THD+N of 0.002%, a signal-to-noise ratio of 120dB, greater than 121dB of dynamic range, and stereo crosstalk of -110dB. The RCAs output 2.0Vrms, while the XLRs output 4.0Vrms. Finally, the Venus II carries a three-year warranty.
Setup and listening
I’ve been in a two-way mood recently, so I did the majority of my listening with my trusty KEF LS50s perched on matching 24″ KEF stands. The LS50s were wired to my Hegel H590 integrated amplifier-DAC, and the Hegel, in turn, was wired to the Venus II’s XLR outputs. My source was an ancient Intel NUC running Roon and Tidal HiFi, hooked up to the Denafrips’s USB input. Finally, both the Hegel and the Denafrips were connected to my Emotiva CMX-2 power conditioner, which eliminates the AC hum from my century-old home. All cabling was courtesy of Siltech’s Classic Legend series (additional detail can be found below in the Associated Equipment section). I started my listening with the DAC in NOS mode.
Kanye West—erm, Ye now, I suppose—may be a bit of a clown, but I really enjoy certain tracks on his newest album, Donda (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Def Jam/Tidal HiFi), named after his late mother. “Jesus Lord” is probably my favorite, a 9:34-long meditation that bobs and weaves its way through the trials and tribulations that Ye faces, from his crumbling marriage to the loss of his mother to his deep Christian faith. His opening verses offered a heady combination of spatial definition and palpability that sounded an awful lot like the built-in DAC in my Hegel H590. Ye’s voice was well defined between my little KEF two-ways, but with nary a hard edge in sight, and it came through sounding lush and larger than life. Jay Electronica’s cameo in the second verse was similarly impressive, with his deeper voice and rapid rhyming highlighted, not by leading edges, but a rich, fulsome middle that was supremely easy to vibe to. Larry Hoover, Jr.’s two-minute monologue about his long-imprisoned father, which rounds out the track, was moving. Buoyed by waves of stylized church organs, Hoover Jr. makes an impassioned plea on his father’s behalf, and I was impressed by how clearly articulated his voice was. There was no softness or ambiguity to speak of in Larry Hoover, Jr.’s placement in the soundstage, just copious detail and nigh-on perfect timbre.
Taylor Swift’s “The 1,” from her album Folklore (24/44.1 MQA, Republic/Tidal HiFi), felt like a good litmus test for the Venus II’s handling of tempo and timing. The opening piano chords through the left and right channels were smooth and creamy, and quickly punctuated by the Denafrips’s handling of the digital kick drum with its rapid, punchy strikes placed in the center of the soundstage. Swift’s soft, breathy vocal was then projected front and center with delightful resolution, as Aaron Dessner punctuated the background with the staccato strums of his acoustic guitar. The different textures coalesced beautifully, each clear and distinct in the soundstage, but never overshadowing another element from the mix. I played it back a couple of times and what I admired was that everything just sounded natural. Contrast that with my Hegel’s built-in DAC, which can sound a little polite at times due to its unnecessary rounding of sharp edges. It was at this point in my listening that I switched the DAC from NOS to OS mode, with the Slow filter engaged, and restarted the track.
Given the high-frequency rolloff present in the NOS mode, I was expecting a pronounced change in the track’s character, and for better or worse, I didn’t get that. I did hear, however, two subtle differences this time around. Swift’s vocal had become more urgent, with slightly highlighted edge definition. I also heard a little more air around her voice, suggesting the NOS mode’s low-pass filter was masking some of the track’s spatial cues. These were not night-and-day differences, though, and it took me a couple listens before I could reliably confirm what I was hearing. I enjoyed both of the Venus’s modes, to be fair, and I would personally opt for the OS mode simply because I like a livelier sound, but the NOS mode ultimately sounded a touch more liquid to my ears. I soldiered on with the OS mode enabled. FYI, the Slow and Sharp filters sounded indistinguishable from one another, something that I’ve consistently found to be the case in many other DACs with multiple filter options that I’ve reviewed over the years.
I recently discovered Daughter’s first studio album, If You Leave (16/44.1 FLAC, Glassnote/Tidal HiFi), and I am taken with its cinematic style—grand tracks with lots of thoughtful lyrics from lead singer Elena Tonra, supported by cerebral drum and guitar work from Remi Aguilella and Igor Haefeli, respectively. I got whiffs of British indie-pop band The xx on “Still,” with its slow, deliberate guitar chords resounding in the mix ahead of Tonra’s fabulous center vocal. Aguilella’s methodical drum strikes were well controlled and highlighted the depth of the soundstage, which was exceptional given the Venus II’s price point. My fingers found themselves motionless on my laptop’s keyboard, my eyes lured from its screen as I stared blankly in the distance, lost in the track’s atmospheric musings about young love. There’s something to be said for products that—to borrow a cliché—just seem to get out of the way and allow me to just enjoy the music. In one sense, all of this fancy gear is for naught if we don’t enjoy the music these devices contrive to produce, and in that regard, Denafrips’s Venus II does its job well.
Mixing things up, I reached for Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic “Top Gun Anthem,” off the Top Gun original soundtrack (16/44.1 AIFF, Columbia), and I reveled in the Denafrips’s precision handling of the electronic opening notes, which danced back and forth from one channel to the other. A smile then crept across my face as Steve Stevens’s overwrought electric guitar wailed the Top Gun theme in all its tacky glory. It was magnificent. The guitar appeared totally detached from the speakers, with a frankly spooky stereophonic effect. Despite my speakers being a mere 12″ from my front wall, the Venus II helped make the track sound cavernous in my long, narrow listening room. For a lively mid-1980s recording, the Denafrips didn’t overemphasize any one aspect of the cut, for which my eardrums are eternally grateful.
I finished off by swapping out my little KEF LS50s for my much larger KEF Reference 3 floorstanders and queued up Susanna Yoko Henkel’s rendition of J.S. Bach’s Partita No.3 in E Major, Preludio, off her 2000 album, Susanna Henkel: Violin Solo (16/44.1 FLAC, The Spot Records/Tidal HiFi). While the big Reference 3s are overkill for a solo violin performance, they do provide greater insight into recordings than the more affordable LS50s, and I was blown away by how good Henkel’s instrument sounded with the floorstanders in the signal chain. Her violin was placed with micrometric precision on the soundstage, totally detached from the big towers on either side, and I couldn’t believe how good it sounded. I could practically see the fingers on her left hand slaloming to and fro, up and down the various strings on her instrument. There was sweetness, extension, and delicacy by the bucketful. Frankly, it’s a bit shocking how far digital audio has come, as this kind of cultured, analog-like ease was simply not accessible for less than $3000 a decade ago—and certainly not in a package built to anywhere near the standard that the Venus II is.
As impressive as I found the Venus II’s sound, it’s not quite a giant-killer. Having reviewed two reference-level DACs in the past couple of years, in the form of the dCS Bartók ($16,000; $18,500 with optional headphone amplifier) and the Mola Mola Tambaqui ($13,400), I’ve found that both of these devices offer far greater functionality, and include a volume control. Moreover, the sound quality of these FPGA-based alternatives is a step up in terms of what you can expect from the Venus II, offering greater transparency, as well as a more spacious sound. What I find so impressive about this mid-tier Denafrips DAC, however, is that while it’s less than a quarter of the price of the Mola Mola—and less than a fifth of the price of the dCS—it offers an uncomfortably high proportion of the performance those masterpieces do. Remember, the margins between great digital—the Venus II, in this case—and state-of-the-art digital are narrow. Most impressively, the fit and finish of the Venus II can easily compete with the Tambaqui, and it’s not terribly far off the tomb-like Bartók.
Denafrips’s Venus II digital-to-analog converter is a peach. It’s built to a frighteningly high standard for its modest asking price of around $3000, with enough brushed billet aluminum to put you—or someone you don’t like—in the hospital if you aren’t careful. Its bespoke ladder DAC architecture stands apart from the many chip-based DACs currently littering the high-end landscape, and its sound marries high-end digital transparency with a dash of analog ease. Though I do find it concerning that Denafrips continues to market its DACs, including the Venus II, as having the ability to operate in non-oversampling mode, despite the fact that they clearly don’t do so in practice, this claim is the only criticism I can foist upon an otherwise exemplary product. It truly does look and feel as good as it sounds, and that definitively places it in the Ultra product pantheon. If you’re looking to indulge your champagne taste on a beer budget, Denafrips’s Venus II DAC should be at the top of your list.
. . . Hans Wetzel
- Speakers: KEF LS50 and Reference 3.
- Integrated amplifier: Hegel Music Systems H590.
- Sources: Intel NUC computer running Roon, Tidal HiFi.
- Speaker cables: Siltech Classic Legend 680L.
- Analog interconnect cables: Dynamique Audio Shadow (RCA), Siltech Classic Legend 680i (XLR).
- Power Cords: Siltech Classic Legend 680P.
- Digital interconnect: Siltech Classic Legend 380 USB.
- Power conditioner: Emotiva CMX-2.
Denafrips Venus II Digital-to-Analog Converter
Price: $4149 SGD (ca. $3074 USD at time of publication).
Warranty: Three years, transferrable.
33 Ubi Avenue 3